8 Brutal Public Relations Disasters from 2013
Business + Economy

8 Brutal Public Relations Disasters from 2013


For all that went right in 2013 – the stock market sailed higher, the economy may finally have generated some momentum, Anthony Weiner didn’t get elected – the year will also be remembered for a number of high-profile disasters. While Weiner provided plenty of material for late-night television levity and MSNBC had to deal with the verbal implosions of Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin, the eight political and pop-culture blowups below stood out as the most devastating public relations nightmares of the year:

Duck Dynasty Star Makes Exactly the Kind of Comments You Would Expect
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson told GQ magazine in an interview that did just that, comparing homosexuality to bestiality and then going on to make racially offensive remarks about blacks in the Jim Crow-era South. The comments led cable television's A&E network to indefinitely suspend the star of its biggest hit.

Some less familiar with show and the family might wonder: Who gives a flying duck? But as GQ itself pointed out, Robertson and his “family of squirrel-eating, Bible-thumping, catchphrase-spouting duck hunters” are now “the biggest TV stars in America,” with 14 million viewers per episode.

While gay rights organizations like GLAAD expressed their strong approval of the suspension, fans of the show and conservative religious organizations criticized the move as an attack on Christian values and free speech. Cracker Barrel backtracked on its decision to remove Duck Dynasty items from its stores and apologized for offending its customers.

In the end, the suspension probably won't make much difference for either the network or viewers, as filming for the current season is already complete, and A&E can have its cake and eat it too by lifting the suspension just in time for next season's filming to begin.

Carnival Cruise Line's Cruise from Hell
“I don’t want to hear the word ‘cruise’ ever again.” So said passenger Kendall Jenkins as she disembarked from the Carnival cruise ship Triumph on Feb. 14, after enduring five days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with no electricity, no heat, no air conditioning … and raw sewage sloshing out of the toilets. The ocean liner had suffered a fire, which didn't immediately threaten the wellbeing of the 4,200 passengers on board, but which knocked out all power and related systems.

Coverage of the disaster was extensive, with CNN alone putting multiple reporters on the scene: one in a boat, one in a helicopter and two onshore. The stock price for Carnival's parent company plunged after the incident and has yet to fully recover. And it's almost certain the lawsuit machine is in high gear. "It's like being locked in a Porta Potty for days," another Triumph passenger commented, which was probably not the customer experience Carnival was shooting for.

JPMorgan Chase's Disastrous Twitter Q&A
“#Badidea! Back to the drawing board!” So tweeted someone at JPMorgan Chase after the superbank's attempt at a career-related Q&A session went terribly wrong. The bank had hoped to reach out to students considering someday working at the bank, and put one of its top executives in the Twitter hot seat to answer related questions.

Twitter users bombarded the JPMorgan exec with questions like "what's your favorite type of whale" and "what illegal deals did Jamie Dimon and the other big banks make with Obama at the closed-door meeting on Oct 2, 2013?" The most pointed question might have been: "Do you know what fiduciary duty is?" Needless to say, the bank quickly shut the Q&A down.

CEO Jamie Dimon couldn't have been happy. With record payouts and fines for mortgage related abuses already marking 2013 as an annus horribilis for the bank, an ill-conceived social media experiment was probably the last thing JPMorgan needed. A #Badidea, indeed.

Abercrombie & Fitch's "Cool Kids" Controversy
In 2006, when asked about the brazenly sexual nature of the company's advertising, Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries told Salon magazine: "Candidly, we go after the cool kids. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." For whatever reason, the comments didn't elicit much attention at the time, but turned up more recently in a book called The New Rules of Retail, at which point they decidedly did.

The media was all over A&F for the obnoxious comments. Celebrities also got in on the thrashing. Kirstie Alley swore her kids would never shop there. One protester took to giving A&F clothes to the homeless, and posted a video of his experience on YouTube. Jeffries response to the affair was half-hearted: “While I believe this seven year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense.” 

For Jeffries, maybe the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. But in an era where there's greater awareness than ever of the dangers of youth obsessing over body image, he's probably lost his status as one of retail's cool kids.

Paula Deen's Fall into Culinary and Cultural Oblivion
In March 2012, a former employee at Paula Deen's "The Lady & Sons" restaurant filed a lawsuit against her, alleging, among other things, racial harassment at work. In comments from the deposition for that lawsuit that surfaced in June, Deen admitted to using racial slurs, setting off a media firestorm that brought down her media empire.

In the space of weeks, Deen lost her Food Network show, multiple lucrative endorsement deals —including ones with Walmart, Target and pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk — as well as a five-book publishing deal with Random House. She posted several apologies to YouTube, and made another on NBC's The Today Show, but Deen was done.

The IRS Admits Targeting Conservative Groups for Audits
In May, the Internal Revenue Service admitted it had targeted conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status for audits, watching for groups that used words and phrases such as "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their applications. On the conference call apologizing for the agency's actions, senior IRS official Lois Lerner said that between 2010 and 2012 there was a "surge in applications for tax-exempt status" and that agency employees used these search terms as shortcuts.

A shakeup at the top of the IRS ensued, along with much political and media handwringing. When it was later revealed that the IRS had also targeted liberal groups using the terms “progress” or “progressive” and seeking the same kind of tax-exempt status, it didn't make much of a dent in the revenue department's battered reputation. On that same conference call with reporters Lerner responded to a journalist's question about a statistic with: "I'm not good at math." A senior revenue collection official stating she wasn't good at math didn't help the agency's reputation very much either.

Tea Partiers Force a Federal Government Shutdown
On the same day HealthCare.gov was set to launch, parts of the federal government were forced to shut down for the first time in almost 20 years because of a congressional budget impasse and Republican opposition to Obamacare. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives wanted to strip funding for the health care law. The Democratically controlled Senate wouldn't hear of it. Neither side blinked, and on Oct. 1 an unfunded federal government closed shop for all but the most essential functions.

Adding to the drama, the U.S. government was poised to default on its debt if Congress didn’t raise the limit on federal borrowing. The government remained closed until Oct. 17, long after many Republicans realized they were losing the public relations battle. To all but the most strident conservatives, the GOP came out of the whole affair as extreme, unreasonable and dangerously unbending, and its poll numbers plummeted – all at a time when the media would have otherwise been focused on the Obamacare rollout.

Obamacare's Broken Website...and Broken Promises
We all know the way things were supposed to go … and the way they actually went. On Oct. 1, Americans nationwide were supposed to be able to quickly and easily shop for health care coverage at HealthCare.gov, the federal government's official insurance marketplace. But from the start, the site's plan selection and sign-up process were plagued by glitches and malfunctions of nightmarish proportions, bringing a storm of criticism down on the Obama administration from both the left and the right.

To make matters worse, President Obama's repeated promise that everyone who liked their health care coverage would be able to keep it turned out to be untrue, with many receiving notices from their insurance companies that their existing policies would be cancelled. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will most likely be President Obama's signature legislative achievement. It's difficult to imagine how the rollout of one of its key components could have gone any worse.

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